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American freedom is on the line

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On the day President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law, he declared it, “one of the most monumental laws in the entire history of American freedom.”

That declaration has stood the test of time. With the stroke of his pen, President Johnson outlawed a political strategy designed to prevent Black, Brown, and Indigenous Americans from voting. In the five years that followed, the number of Black Americans who registered to vote in six southern states was nearly the same as the number who had registered during the entire century leading up to the law’s passage. In the words of Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 “marries two great ideals: democracy and racial equality.”

Yet in recent years, this marriage of democracy and racial equality is under attack. And its fate now rests on the actions lawmakers in Congress take in the coming months.

Across America, we are witnessing the most coordinated effort to suppress voters of color since the days of Jim Crow. In the past year alone, state legislators have introduced hundreds of laws that make it harder for people to vote. These new attempts to suppress voters of color highlight why the Voting Rights Act was enacted in the first place — to ensure our most fundamental Constitutional right is protected against pernicious efforts to strip it away.

But last week, for the second time in a decade, the conservative majority on the Supreme Court issued a ruling that weakens a central pillar of the Voting Rights Act with its decision in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee. This ruling builds upon the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which allowed states and localities that have historically discriminated against voters of color to erect new barriers to voting.

With its decision in Brnovich, the Court has attacked a remaining key section of the Voting Rights Act — Section 2 — by upholding two Arizona laws that make it harder for Arizonans to vote. A lower federal court had previously ruled that both laws disproportionately disenfranchised the state’s Black, Hispanic, and Native American voters. But the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled otherwise, and seized the opportunity to further diminish the protections of the Voting Rights Act.

To quote Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion, “in the last decade, this court has treated no statute worse” than the Voting Rights Act.

As state legislators continue to chip away at the protections guaranteed to all Americans under the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, it is imperative for Congress to restore them. Fortunately, a remedy is already waiting: the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, a bipartisan piece of legislation that would revitalize and strengthen the protections President Johnson signed into law with the original Voting Rights Act of 1965. Right now, lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are working closely to update and re-introduce this legislation — and as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, I will work expeditiously to bring it to the Senate floor.

The question for my Republican colleagues is: will you join us in defending the right to vote? It wasn’t so long ago that many of these same Republican senators voted to reauthorize the original Voting Rights Act. In fact, a few years before the Shelby ruling, Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) voiced unwavering support for reauthorizing the Voting Rights Act because, in his words, “this is a piece of legislation which has worked.” With the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, we can make sure it keeps working — and protect the rights of American voters for years to come.

That is, unless Republicans filibuster it to an early grave. Just last month, Republicans blocked the Senate from even starting debate on the For the People Act, which would strengthen voting rights, secure our elections, and combat corruption in our political system. Will they take the same approach when it comes to restoring the Voting Rights Act? If they do, it may reveal a darker truth: that the Party of Lincoln has decided its path to victory requires voter suppression.

Americans are calling on this Senate to protect the integrity of our democracy — and to secure our Constitutional rights. If preserving the right to vote means reforming the Senate’s rules, then so be it. There is no excuse for inaction. Nothing less than the future of American freedom is on the line.

Durbin is the Senate majority whip.

Tags Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee Elena Kagan For the People Act John Lewis John Lewis Voting Rights Act Mitch McConnell Shelby County v. Holder

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